I have been challenged on several occasions since the EU referendum on June 23rd over my attitude towards democracy. “You lost. Get over it. That’s democracy. We’ve got to leave. We’re all Brexiters now”. I am firmly a democrat, and that is why I’ve continued to argue the case for the UK to remain in the EU. In some circles, sadly including the UK government, democracy now means complying with the demands of the owners and editorial staff ouf our most unpleasant tabloids. They represent “the will of the people”. I don’t buy that, and I don’t accept the rather childish definition of democracy that means if you get one more vote than the other side then you can do whatever you want.
This article sums up my arguments why I think leaving the EU on the basis of the referendum result, and especially leaving the Single Market, is not necessarily democratic.
- David Cameron was two faced in telling the country that it was a straightforward in-out referendum. However, Parliament was asked to legislate for an advisory referendum. If the proposed referendum legislation had stated that a Leave victory would require the government to invoke Article 50 then there would have been debate about the safeguards that a mandatory referendum would need.
This is a particularly important point in a referendum that will lead to us losing our rights as EU citizens. It is not a simple matter of choosing an MP to represent us and giving the job to the candidate who received the most support. Brexiteers insist that winning one more vote than Remain allows them to take away our rights. Out of every 100 voters 48 wanted to retain these rights as EU citizens. 52 did not want these rights and many of them are taking malicious glee in insisting that the 48 have to suck it up and lose some of their civil rights. Mature democracies don’t work that way. Removing people’s rights is a big deal and needs suitable safeguards.
As it transpired, only 37% of the UK electorate voted to leave and 63% did not. The Trade Union Act 2016 stipulated that any industrial action by workers in “important public services” requires support by both a majority and at least 40% of the electorate. No Tory MPs voted against this act, or against the EU Referendum Act. If the referendum act had had a 40% safeguard Remain would have won.
The question every Conservative politician should answer is why the party considers a one day train strike more important than the UK’s future, its EU membership and our rights as EU citizens. The obvious answer is that the government dared not confront its backbenchers or UKIP who would have been furious at any safeguards. Until the Conservatives can provide a more persuasive reason I shall assume that under David Cameron’s disastrous leadership they put the party before the country.
- If it had been merely an opinion poll the result would have had no validity because of the ambiguity over what Leave meant. People voted leave for many different reasons. Theresa May is proceeding on the assumption that the question asked “Do you think the country is pretty shit these days?” and gives her the right to do what she likes now to placate the frenzied headline writers in the Daily Express and Daily Mail.
The most bizarre aspect of the current mess is the widespread acceptance of May’s autocratic behaviour. She, like all Tory MPs, was elected on a manifesto “to safeguard British interests in the Single Market”. The EU referendum was a mandate to leave the EU. The question did not ask about the Single Market, immigration or free movement, yet she is acting as if this vague question, with no indication of the options or consequences, gives her an overwhelming mandate for drastic action, including taking us out of the Single Market.
Only 52% voted to leave the EU. Amongst those are many voters who believed the promises we could stay in the Single Market. Conservative MPs are honour bound to apply that decision in a way that is consistent with their electoral mandate and their duty to act in the national interest. They should therefore press for membership of the Single Market from outside the EU, like Norway and Switzerland. They won’t, because they are spineless or happy to put party before country, but they should. Of course that outcome would obviously be worse than we had before, but it should be up to the Brexiters to justify that. They shouldn’t be allowed to go straight for a far worse option to hide the fact they had no coherent plan that could have won a majority. If they can’t justify the only outcome for which they have a mandate then we have a reasonable right to ask whether we should leave the EU at all.
Sadly, Mrs May’s priority is to appease euro-sceptic backbenchers and keep her tanks parked firmly on UKIP’s lawn to make it clear to Tory voters that there is no point defecting to the right now that her Tory party has morphed into UKIP. To May the will of the people means what a majority of Leave voters want, ie a minority of those who voted. The 48% and less extreme Leave voters don’t count. If she uses the Royal Prerogative to bypass Parliament and remove us from the Single Market she will be doing so with no democratic mandate and against the wishes of the British people. Remember that the Brexit majority was so small that if even 5% of those who voted Leave want to stay in the Single Market that wipes out the Leave majority. There is only a mandate for leaving the Single Market if more than 95% of Brexit voters wanted that. Since they were not even asked the question it is ludicrous to assume that they all want it. Leaving the Single Market on the basis of this referendum would be the most disgraceful abuse of power by any British politician since the introduction of universal suffrage. All politicians who take democracy seriously have a duty to fight this.
- Following on from that point, Leave voters want wildly different outcomes, none of which could have beaten Remain in a straight fight. There is no mandate for any one of them. Remain is the most popular option, but that has been excluded because of a spurious definition of “democracy”. If David Cameron had had sufficient nerve and integrity he would have insisted that Leave campaigners come up with an agreed vision of what Brexit would mean, and that would have been put to the country as an alternative to continuing membership. He should have rejected outright any attempt to offer a “pro having cake and pro eating it” manifesto, as offered by Boris Johnson.
The Leave campaigns learned from the Scottish independence referendum, in which the SNP led Scottish Government produced a detailed white paper about what independence would mean. This was dissected, debated, and ultimately rejected by the electorate. Leave therefore took a strategic decision that they would offer no detail, nothing that could be challenged, and simply exploit the confusion. This was politically brilliant, but it was utterly unprincipled and far from democratic.
- By structuring the referendum in this way with a flawed status quo being matched against a nebulous alternative, in order to pacify Tory backbenchers and UKIP, the government provided the Leave campaigns with every incentive to lie; they could do so with impunity. This further confuses what the result means. After the poll the Leave campaigns slipped away into the shadows and their public faces all brazenly disassociated themselves from the contradictory, dishonest claims it had made, and cheerfully cherry picked the aspects of Brexit they favoured, ignoring all the promises and reassurances.
- We have a representative, parliamentary democracy in which MPs have to balance their different objectives in a coherent programme that their party has persuaded the country is for the national benefit. Treating the EU referendum as mandatory means that MPs are instructed to act in a certain way, even if they believe it is against the national interest, and inconsistent with the other policies for which they already have a mandate from the electorate. The result is a mess that we have not even begun to work our way through.
- Millions whose future is affected were not allowed to vote. If it had been on the same basis as the Scottish independence referendum (ie EU nationals and 16/17 year olds allowed to vote) there would probably have been a Remain vote. Incidentally, if the Scottish referendum had been on the same basis as the EU one then Scotland would be independent now. Which basis is right? Which is “democracy”? For what it’s worth I believe EU citizens and these youngsters should have been allowed a vote because they live here, have a stake in the country and this deeply affects their future.
UK citizens who had left the country more than 15 years ago were also excluded, although it was a commitment in the 2015 Conservative manifesto that they should be allowed to voted in all elections.
The UK government chose to disenfranchise all these people, for cynical rather than principled reasons. They were too scared to have a fair vote. They hoped they could concede everything to UKIP and still win. That was a political decision. There is no natural, correct, democratic answer about what the correct electorate should have been and that is what the Brexiteers implicitly assumed; of course foreigners, ex-pats and kids can’t have a say, they might not give the “right” answer.
- The result was so close, with older voters favouring Brexit, and younger voters wanting to remain, that demographic changes will mean there’s a majority to stay in the EU by the time we eventually do leave, even if no-one changes their mind. So even setting aside those who regret their decision, and there are already enough of them to reverse the result, we will leave the EU with a majority of the electorate wishing we could stay. That’s democracy is it?
- A simple, binary referendum is totally unsuitable for this sort of complex decision with huge, far-reaching implications. The decision, either way, was always going to produce results that made people who were ostensibly on the winning side say “but I didn’t want that”.
These are just some of the reasons that insisting on leaving the EU isn’t necessarily a democratic decision. There are other good reasons why the referendum should never have been called, such as the effect on Northern Ireland, and the possibility it could result in Scotland leaving the Union. It was an incredibly reckless act in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum, in which a constant theme was “vote No to safeguard Scotland’s place in the EU”. It’s not a matter of calling for a re-run of the referendum. I’ve long experience of being on the losing side of elections. This is different. The UK, if it survives, has been hijacked by a faction of the Tory party, with no mandate. The consequences could be irreversible. This is not democracy.